You won’t see a more technically brilliant film in cinemas this year than The Revenant. It has an otherworldly beauty to it, thanks in part to the stunning cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity), who used only natural light to get his shots. Just let me say that again: Only natural light! That’s a revelation in itself, and explains why the production reportedly managed no more than around 90 minutes of filming each day (sometimes much less) in pursuit of just the right weather to capture what they needed.
It’s this patience and commitment which ensures the sprawling landscapes are each an individual artistic masterwork. I honestly can’t emphasise enough how amazing The Revenant looks, and it’s so worthy of a big screen viewing from this standpoint.
However. I feel like it’s precisely the above mission statement which means the important bits of the film; the story and characters, play a major second fiddle to the visuals.
In short, this is a revenge tale. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) has helped a group of pelt farmers survive an unforgiving wilderness, and is attacked (ravaged in fact) by a bear and nearly dies. Those charged with his care take the life of his son and abandon him in a particularly hostile manner, and so Hugh is left to defy death before setting off in pursuit of those who have done him wrong.
It’s a fairly standard revenge tale premise, and one which could easily be wrapped up in 90 minutes. But why opt for succinct storytelling and an exciting pace when instead you can dwell in the land of the slow burn for the best part of two-and-a-half hours? That’s what this enormously self-indulgent film then does.
The long swathes of nothing happening are propped up by a DiCaprio performance which has one mode; anguish. He snarls, spits, screams and wheezes his way through one painful experience after another, to the point where seeing a man hell-bent on vengeance but half-crippled by oozing wounds and a gammy leg becomes kind of farcical. You just want him put out of his misery.
All of the characters are trapped in this hellish landscape, and in fact Tom Hardy’s antagonist Fitzgerald remarks ‘I don’t have a life,’ which is the honest statement any of these men could make. They would all be better off dead, and in fact it seems to be more of a punishment for Fitzgerald to have to stay alive, thereby making Glass’ quest all the more pointless.
Because of this tedium you start picking apart the film in real-time. Suddenly DiCaprio as Hugh Glass doesn’t work at all. Sure he’s one of the greatest living actors, but despite a bushy beard and weary eyes he can’t mask his boyish good looks, and his casting as a grizzled woodsman becomes wrong. I found myself wishing for Josh Brolin to appear and boot DiCaprio into a river to show us how it should be done.
It annoys me now that DiCaprio is tipped to ‘finally’ take home that Oscar. If I was him I’d be annoyed too. He gave such an amazing performance in Wolf of Wall Street. That was an Oscar performance, showing range, explosive energy, a total immersion into a character. The Revenant just sees him covered in blood and spittle, in a performance that, let’s be honest, is not beyond the realms of most actors.
What it seems to come down to is the story behind how the film was made. Interestingly it’s these behind-the-scenes details that have been predominantly used to sell the film. If you’ve seen the press junkets then you’ll have heard how the cast and crew endured months of freezing temperatures and harsh territory as they filmed exclusively on location. These men and women were put through the wringer, and that, we’re led to believe, is why the film is so great and awards worthy. But to me that matters for nothing at all when the story is so laborious as to make you wish you were somewhere else, watching something else.
The fact is there are better revenge films told on less than a tenth of this film’s budget and without an accompanying sob-story from those involved about why they risked hypothermia for the sake of art. I mean for God’s sake the original Kickboxer is a better revenge film than this. At least Jean-Claude Van Damme had me in his corner. The Revenant just had me rolling my eyes in disbelief with every new torturous plot point Hugh Glass had to face. I just wanted him to shut his eyes and shuffle of this mortal coil in peace.
That aside its a beautiful looking film. It’s got that look of prestige. I guess that’s all that matters for this year’s awards season.